James Ssewankambom stares blankly as cameras click away while a revenue officer fits a tracking device onto his truck.
The truck driver is about to set off for his weekly journey, ferrying goods from the port of Mombasa on Kenya’s coast to Uganda’s capital Kampala — a journey of more than 900km.
It is the 14th time that Mr Ssewankambom’s truck is being fitted with the tracking seal, a requirement under the regional electronic cargo tracking system (Rects) programme.
The web-based system under pilot from March this year, seeks to facilitate trade on the Northern Corridor by allowing revenue authorities from Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda to jointly monitor goods from loading to destination.
This is aimed at improving safety and promoting fair terms of trade by eliminating cargo theft.
Initially Mr Ssewankambo was sceptical about the system, referring to the gadget as a mulika mwizi. Translated loosely, mulika mwizi is a Kiswahili phrase meaning to shine a spotlight on the thief.
But he is now accustomed to having the little gadget on his truck.
“When this device is fitted, you are under watch. Even a two-minute stop to relieve yourself is enough to earn you a call from the monitoring agents in Nairobi and Kampala,” he said. “Initially, the process was cumbersome. But I am now used to it and I feel safer.”
On this day, his truck is full of used clothing which authorities say carry a high risk of diversion into the Kenyan market.
The electronic gadget is attached to the container’s rear and activated before the truck leaves the port. The device is backed by a 4G Safaricom Sim card.
It is pre-loaded with important information including truck details, the type of cargo it is carrying, driver details, container details, origin and the route to be taken to the final destination.
Transporters pay $1,200 to install the device on their trucks plus a monthly fee of $100. However, the new system — which replaced the electronic cargo tracking system (ECTS) in which countries monitored cargo independently — will now see select high value or high risk goods access the tracking system for free.
Transport delays and cargo theft are among the key concerns that importers and exporters using the Northern Corridor have battled with for years, forcing them to pay high premiums to insure their goods. Drivers too have faced the risk of violent robberies, deaths and even arrest for complicity.
“Just knowing that there is someone monitoring the cargo in real time reduces my worries about theft and carjacking. I feel safe whenever the device is fitted on my truck. In the 14 instances, I only had the rapid team respond once, when a cable dislodged from the device, prompting an alert,” Ssewankambom said.
The Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and the Rwandan Revenue Authority (RRA) see this tracking system as the solution to the theft and diversion of high risk goods in transit — textiles, rice, sugar, cigarettes and tea.
Revenue authorities consider them to have high Custom value or a higher risk of diversion.
“When we arm these trucks at our yard, it is only the Customs officials at the destination country who can disarm them,” said KRA operations manager at the Mombasa port Joseph Kaguru.
“We have also installed surveillance cameras at our border post Customs offices, which capture the number plates of trucks and also show the interactions between the drivers and Customs agents.”
Through its five-month pilot of the electronic tracking system, the URA, which has the highest bulk of transit goods, has been the biggest beneficiary. It has saved more than $2.5 million in revenue on goods that would have probably been diverted into the Kenyan market.
“The ECTS [launched in 2013] was a major breakthrough from the manual system as it yielded real time monitoring of cargo and reduced transit times; but it was under private firms, which made it difficult for us to access data. With RECTS we have full control of the system and can intervene within seconds stopping the loss of revenue,” said URA commissioner for Customs Dicksons Kateshumbwa.
Police on patrol at different check points on the Northern Corridor respond to violations triggered by the system.
Over the past five months, URA has recorded 65,860 alerts on transit cargo, with going off-route topping the list, followed by tampering with the tracking device.
The majority of the alerts occurred within the Kenyan territory. So far, 20,785 consignments have been tracked using 2,700 seals, with plans to have all transit cargo tracked within the next three years.
“We have handled 57 cases so far, with the help of this system. Out of these, nine were attempted robberies, 16 attempted diversions, 17 procedure breaches, nine accidents and six cases of transshipment,” said Mr Kateshumbwa.
At the Kampala monitoring office, the URA operations team leader for Rects David Dongo, gets on the phone with a driver of a truck that has veered off its designated route before Jinja by more than 500 metres.
His diversion has triggered off an alarm on the screens that Mr Dongo and four other Customs agents are monitoring, prompting the phone call.
“The driver has informed me that he was looking for a safe place to park the truck and take a one-hour lunch break. I have activated the Google street view so that I can physically see where this truck is parked. The alarm will deactivate when the truck gets back on its designated route as it heads to Kigali,” he said.
Any tampering with the seal automatically sends alerts to the Central Monitoring Centre which notifies the revenue authorities’ Rapid Response Unit.
“Using a system on a tablet, our officers can trace a problem to the exact spot and both audio and video images relayed to the CMC from the scene. We are able to detect any illegal activity when a seal is tampered with or when a truck deviates from its route,” said Mr Dongo.
Easier access at the crossing points
At the Malaba border, customs officer Edmund Mukinda said trucks fitted with the tracking seal are automatically detected by the cameras at the gate, allowing them quicker passage because they are not subjected to inspection.
“We know what they are carrying and given that they are being tracked, and are under strict timelines, they have easier access at the crossing points,” said Mr Mukinda.
The average time for the e-monitored trucks has reduced to one-and-a-half days between Mombasa and either Malaba or Busia border from more than four days.
Kenya International Freight and Warehousing Association national chairman Auni Bhaiji said the reduction on cargo transit time has been a major boost to the ease of doing business.
“For us, the speed of completing deliveries and the ease of bond cancellation are key wins. We have more time to focus on the business because we will not have random stops by different teams asking for documents,” said Mr Bhaiji.